Lumber mills Guelph, Ontario, poor working conditions, dangerous jobs Guelph serious injuries, toxic workplaces

Townhouses are being built on the land at 249 York Road between Morris and Huron Streets. Beyond the tracks that subdivides the land is a parking lot. This property was once home to the Gilson Manufacturing Co. From 1906 to 1977, the plant produced a variety of items beginning with gas engines and ending up with a full line of washers and freezers. During its long life, it went from being a minor Canadian subsidiary of an American Firm - the Gilson Manufacturing Co. of Port Washington, Wisconsin, launched in 1850 by Theodore Gilson, to being a nationally recognized Canadian owned and operated company.

The American Branch Plant

The Gilson Company arrived in Guelph in late 1906 as a branch company. In 1908, the plant at York Road is described as having a floor space of some 13,700 square feet. It was constructed of brick. Sitting on a parcel of land covering 2.5 acres, it had room to grow. This it was do over the next few decades.

The newly built plant was at first operated by an American. Edward Barelman, transferred from the American plant, held the position of president and general manager when, in 1907, it produced its first “Made in Canada” Gilson gas engines for agricultural equipment. These included pneumatic ensilage cutters, Gilson Silo Fillers and Hylo Silos. To all appearances, they were identical to those made by the parent company in Wisconsin.

In addition, this early plant made chair fixtures (which they produced until 1961). According to its promotional material, it was a “leading manufacturer” in this line. However, it was the gas engines that drove their profit margin upwards.  For these, the Guelph company had both a selling point and slogan - one that stuck. It was “Goes Like Sixty.”

However, during these early years, all was not well with the workforce. The 15 moulders, members of local IMU 212, went out on strike in 1913 from May 19 until August 23. They were part of a protest staged by the moulders working in the foundry departments of two other shops: Raymond’s Sewing Machine Manufactory and Griffin’s. All were looking for a raise of 25 cents a day. This would increase their salary to $3.25. The moulders also expressed concerns over the intention of increasing the amount of advanced money for pieceworkers. Yet, while the disputes at Raymond’s and Griffin’s were resolved with a compromise, that at Gilson’s did not have such an ending. The company closed the foundry forever, putting the men out of work.

Becoming Canadian

In 1916, the ownership changed. Although John Gilson () president of the American firm, was listed as Vice President in 1919). The American Gilson’s was purchased by Harry Bolens (1864-1944). He was not interested in the Canadian company. Instead, it was bought by a group of Canadian investors including Horace Mack.

Horace Mack (1895-1959) was a Guelphite. He had started working for Gilson’s in 1911 at age-fifteen as an office boy. He parlayed hard work and determination into a career at the company, rising to become Manager of the Engine and Silo Feeder Depots by 1919 and president when Edward Barelman died in 1927.   During this period, he had the support of several men including R.K. Dawson (company director in 1919) Ferman and Stanley Koch (Koch was Secretary and Manager of the Tractor and Thresher Depots in 1919) and H. Cooper. Later Dawson was to become plant foreman then VP of the company.

Initially, both the American and Canadian companies produced similar products. They both made stationary gas engines. This was to change in 1917 when the American firm stopped making them. The Guelph plant continued to do so until around 1927.

Around the end of the First World War, Gilson had begun to manufacture farm tractors. They used Foote Brothers’ transmissions and Waukesha engines in their three different sized tractors:

1.   11-20

2.   12-25

3.   15-30

Tractor models included the Gilson Standard Tractor and the “Light Weight Dixie- Ace.” The experiment was short lived. With competition from other companies, it was not a viable product. After only manufacturing around 100, they stopped making them in 1922. Instead, a year earlier, they began to produce warm air furnaces and, in 1925, the first “Snowbird” Washer. In 1929, they added refrigeration units to their production line. It was to help them replace the revenue they had once achieved from making gas engines.

Along the way, Gilson’s created ad campaigns that stayed with the public. Although they only made three cars in the early 1920s, the slogan “Goes Like Sixty” remained a part of their iconography. In 1918, it was written beneath an ad for the “Gilson Standard Tractor.” Their furnaces were advertised with the catchphrase “Gilson Products make many warm friends.” In addition, a popular means of promoting their furnaces was through piggy banks in the shape of a Gilson Furnace.

The 1930s were trying times. Nevertheless, Gilson’s managed to keep operating. Even going so far as to produce the first ever standard production freezer in 1937. When the plant on York Road needed a new roof in 1930, the company chose to employ only local labour to do the repairs. They also borrowed as much money as they could to make sure the plant on York Road stayed open at least a few days a week. This was a company that, under Mack, seemed to care about its employees.

However, the two accidents recorded for Gilson’s also occurred during the 1930s. Until then the company has no known listed ones. On February 17, 1931, Reuben Hatley was killed when the wheel he was working on broke into sections. On July 6, 1939, William Elliott was working on a machine. It crushed his hand resulting in the amputation of 2 fingers.


World War Two

World War II was a time for expansion. During this war, Gilson’s became the go-to for refrigeration units. These were not domestic products. Rather, they were for Canada’s navy. In fact, Gilson refrigeration units were on all naval vessels built in Canada for the war. 

After the War ended, it dived into the production of domestic products – specifically electric washers, dryers, furnaces and refrigeration equipment. It was tied to a growing interest in modernizing the basic appliances in a home. Their ads proclaimed washers of various types including the ever popular Snow Bird line – even for those home that lacked electricity. In fact, Gilson’s became the acknowledged expert in both domestic and commercial refrigeration during the 1950s. It was in the late 1940s that plant square footage grew from 13,000 to 130,000 square feet allowing it to accommodate the escalation in their domestic product production.

Horace Mack and Bird Sanctuaries

Horace Mack was a naturalist. He worked with the Guelph Field Naturalists Club, the Grand River Conservation Authority and the Speed River Flood Control Committee. However, he is best remembered for the creation of the Eden and Niska Game sanctuaries in the 1930s and post WWII.

His company’s extensive grounds were home to various native and exotic wildlife. The well-manicured grounds were maintained by an Englishman, Mr. Copp. He also took care of the various “exotic” wildlife that were either penned on or roamed the grounds. These included a bear, dingo dogs and pheasants. In the 1930s, as times became harder, the company had to take measures to prevent the locals from poaching the wildlife.

On his properties located in Eden Mills and Niska (the latter then a short distance outside of Guelph), he established a place for breeding and rearing various types of wild birds and waterfowl. By 1952, a great percentage of the area surrounding the Niska property had been declared a federal wildlife sanctuary. After his death, the property soon fell into the hands of the Ontario Waterfowl Research Foundation. They purchased it in 1961, turning into a sanctuary. However, the costs of maintaining it were high. In order to defray it, they opened a portion of it to the public in 1961. This became known as the Kortright Waterfowl Park. However, poaching continued to take its toll of the waterfowl and in 2005 it was closed to the public. The birds were transferred to other locations over time. When the Grand River Conservation Authority took it over, they began the process of returning it to its natural form.

Later Years

Although the company had expanded its facilities, finally topping off at 130,000 square feet of floor space, it was sold once again in 1948. This time, the purchaser was the Robert Elder Company. Mack continued to work for the new owners as Chairman of the Board until his death in 1959 while Elder took over as president. It was under this new management that Gilson’s second strike took place. This time, it was over a wage increase recommended by the Conciliation Board previously. The company had not put the recommendations into place. The result was a strike on April 7, 1953. One hundred and ninety-eight household appliance workers walked out and formed a picket line. They stayed out until May 12 when the new agreement was reached. It contained a wage compromise to support both the company’s and the workers’ demands. 

At this point, Elder sold the company to A.L. Geller and several others. For whatever reason, they were not adept at managing it. In 1961, Gilson’s filed a bankruptcy claim for more than $800,000. The end result was the purchase of the majority of company shares by former employees in 1964:

·        A. James Kendrick – President in 1967

·        Cyril M. McDonald – Plant Manager for Gilson’s in 1967

·        Edward (Ted) C. Carroll - who was the service manager for Gilson’s in 1967

·        Russ F. Flanigan – who was treasurer for Gilson’s in 1967

·        James K. Simmons – who was the industrial engineer at Gilson’s in 1967

 They sold the original plant on York Road in 1966 and focused on producing freezers at their other facility.

By this time, the company had added another plant. This one was located at 53 Victoria Road at the junction of Elizabeth Street. Although Gilson’s was never a major employer along the lines of IMICO, it did hold steady over its existence at 100 employees. During a boom during the 1920s, the workforce rose to a fluctuating 250.

Gilson’s tried to shake up their product time in the 1970s. It added the Trashpak to its products line. Whoever, this did not have the impetus they needed and the company was once more up for sale in 1972. This time, the owners were McGraw-Edison of Canada Ltd. By this time, the Victoria plant was the only one in operation. It had reduced its product line to Gilson, Queen, Simplicity and Speed freezers. The number of employees had also decreased. On April 1, 1977, when the plant became a subsidiary and closed for good, only 50 worked in the Victoria plant. 

The Most Dangerous Places to Work in Guelph

Lumber Mills, Furniture Factories and Other Deadly Delights

The wood cutting machinery of the time was dangerous. Planers, stave cutters, circular saws, planing machine, buzz saw, jointing machine, gear cutter machine, jointer, shaper, cross-cut saw, shears and buzz planer were found in many factories. Their sharp blades and fine-honed teeth were not protected; there was no guard between a worker and their oh so sharp edges. In 1886, four men from the same shop were off work due to cut fingers. This made Stewart’s Lumber Mill, Bell’s Organ & Piano Factory, Raymond’s Sewing Machine Factory, Burr Brothers Furniture Factory, Gowdy’s Agricultural Works, Skinner’s Furniture Manufactory, the Tolton Bros. Agricultural Works, J. B. Armstrong’s Carriage Factory and many others, the most dangerous places to work in Guelph. Workers lost fingers, hands, thumbs and even arms. This was not, as employers and, later, factory inspectors, would have it believed, the fault of the worker.  They were not all careless. The lack of protection was at fault. There was, at first, no guard between the blade and the operator. Combining this with the employment of green hands with little or no training, the result was predictable.  


Sharp Edged Tools

In Guelph, over half of the accidents in factories were the product of buzz saws, planers, shapers and other sharp tools.  The loss of body parts to such machinery was a common occurrence at:

                            Raymond’s Sewing Machine Factory   

                            Bell’s Organs & Piano

Burr & Skinner’s Furniture   Factory  

McCandless and Richardson’s Wood Yard   

Harris & Co.’s Organ Furnishing Factory

James Organ Factory 

    One of the earliest known accidents in Guelph occurred when a Mr. Henry, working for Hockin’s Cooperage in 1866, had his hand cut off by a stave cutter. In 1871, while working at Stewart’s, Theodore Cross lost a thumb to a circular saw. He fared better than Thomas Sale, who lost three fingers of his right hand in 1881. Bell’s had several accidents occur within a single day, in 1867.  Nor did the situation seem to improve in time. In 1897, James Johns at Bell’s left hand was so badly mangled it had to be amputated.

    After the Factory Law of 1884, little changed. In 1899, the Factory Inspector for the district stated wood-working machinery was responsible for about 54 per cent of all the accidents. Although dangerous machinery was to be guarded, employers interpreted it according to their needs using section 11(3) “so far as is reasonably practicable”. The courts also reinterpreted the law. They felt guards should apply only to the transitive and not the moving parts of a machine. As a result, power sources needed to be protected; blades did not. The implementation of change was difficult within a culture that blamed accidents as either unavoidable or the fault of the worker.


    Foundries: Molten Metal and Rusty Ladles


    Workmen were busily engaged turning out wrought iron into such shape to be ready for the machine shop. The moulding shop is a scene of animation about half past four o’clock each day. It is here the small army of men are busily engaged making ready to pour molten iron. The roar of the fan is heard, while orders are given in a higher key by the foreman. At last everything is ready and the cupola is tapped. All have ladles in which to catch the liquid iron. After a number of boxes have been poured, and the steam from the damp sand begins to fill the building, nothing looks more like the picture of some other world where imps are said to have their abode.

    Description of the blacksmith and moulding shops of Levi Cossit’s Agricultural Implement Works, March, 1878.


    Foundries were also dangerous places in which to work. Guelph had several moulding shops in operation in the 19th century:



    Wellington Foundry



      George Sunley’s Tin shop.

      In addition, some factories incorporated foundry work into their assembly of products. The Guelph Carriage Works, Cossitt’s Implements and Raymond’s had metal work to be done. At such foundries, workers were faced with a number of health and safety issues. Extremes of temperature were first on the list. Outdoors it could be -10 degrees centigrade while indoors the furnaces and fires kept temperatures at close to 90 degrees C.  The older shops were cold and damp. Night casting of metals produced gas and smoke in a confined space with poor to no ventilation. This made conditions ideal for pneumonia and other respiratory problems. There have been no studies done in Canada on the impact of such extreme conditions upon workers. The data collector for Guelph in 1889, however, remarked that colds were not uncommon when the temperature indoors differed from outdoors in such extremes.


      Rusty Ladles

      In addition to the molten metal and the toxic fumes, workers faced  serious issues when it came to the condition of the equipment in use. Foundry work was quite primitive in nature.  Men would actually carry molten metal in ladles. They would then pour the metal into the moulds and return for more.  If the ladle was defective, someone or something jarred your arm as you passed or if the ladle was rusted at the bottom, a worker would end up with molten metal pouring down his legs and into his boots. The pain was excruciating; the damage irreparable. Yet, this was life for foundry workers and so many others during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

      Labouring All Our Lives   |  Privacy Statement